The War in the West: James Holland in conversation

James Holland talks about the second book in his The War in the West trilogy, spanning the years from 1941 to 1943, with historian and author John Buckley

John Buckley and James Holland next to a fighter plane at the Imperial Museum, London

In The Allies Fight Back, 1941–43, the second volume of James Holland’s The War in the West trilogy, he explores the central, pivotal years of the Second World War, charting the conflict as it developed throughout the various theatres.


A bestselling historian and broadcaster, Holland’s previous work includes The Battle of Britain (2010) and Burma ’44: The Battle that Turned Britain’s War in the East (2016, both Bantam). He has also presented a number of history TV series for the BBC.

Holland met the historian and author John Buckley at the Imperial War Museum in London to discuss the arguments and themes of his book. Professor of military history at the University of Wolverhampton, Buckley’s books include Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe (Yale, 2013).

John Buckley: This is the second of your three-volume history of the Second World War. Why did you decide to tackle the subject in such an ambitious way?

James Holland: It is ambitious, and it’s certainly a massive undertaking. The main reason I decided to do it is that some years ago I realised that I didn’t know enough about the minutiae of war: how soldiers interacted and operated, the kits that they were using, the weapons they fought with, and so on.

I also realised that, of the three levels of warfare – strategic, operational and tactical – the narrative of the Second World War in mass-market books, films and documentaries over the past 70 years has concentrated almost entirely on the strategic and the tactical. That’s the high-level stuff – what Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler or US general George Patton were thinking, for instance – but the operational level has just been entirely removed from the narrative.

I had also got fed up of reading what I call the ‘declinist’ view: in other words, that Britain was rubbish, that the United States was lucky in having a huge arsenal, and that the Germans were brilliant but led by a madman – and that’s why Germany lost, after Hitler led them to beat their heads against the eastern front. I think all of that is just wrong and, because there’s no point whingeing about it, I’ve written about it in what I hope is a mass-market way.

JB: You do put a lot of emphasis on logistics and supply, and the organisational side of things. How do you make that appealing? The reason that people have previously left it out, in part, is that it’s difficult to make entertaining.

JH: The way that I always write my books is to have a cast list of characters that the reader follows through their experiences. Obviously, some of them don’t make it all of the way through the war, and some of them come and go, but the way to do it is to tell the logistics story through key personalities, bringing it back to human drama.

And, frankly, when you’re talking about something such as the development of the United States as the ‘arsenal of democracy’ [US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1940 promise to help the United Kingdom by providing military supplies rather than direct military intervention], that allows you to introduce the most incredible stories and characters. There were so many labour strikes in the US in 1941, for example, and there are really interesting and colourful characters such as industrialist Henry Kaiser and automotive expert and general Bill Knudsen. I don’t think that it’s that hard to bring to life both them and the challenges they faced.

JB: How did the various nations approach issues of managing resources, including troops, and how did this affect the outcome of the war?

JH: I strongly believe – and all of the research supports this – that Britain and America absolutely made the most of the resources and potential they had. Both of them adopted a policy of ‘steel not flesh’ – of trying to minimise the amount of manpower they had to have at the front line.

Broadly speaking, they were successful at this, by 1940s standards – certainly compared with the Germans, who were very foot-heavy, the Soviet Union and Chinese and Japanese even more so. Compared with those nations, Britain and the United States had very small standing armies, which I’d argue is just being efficient and sensible.

What you see with the Germans, on the other hand, is them constantly not making the most of their already meagre resources. They made the situation worse by spending money and focusing on things that they just shouldn’t have prioritised.

The perception is that the Germans were at the cutting edge of military advances, and they just weren’t

JB: What also comes out in your book is that the Germans were not cutting edge, as some people suggest, but were instead fighting a very old-fashioned war.

JH: Yes, the perception is that the Germans were at the cutting edge of military advances, and they just weren’t. You only have to look at them in the period from 1939 to 1941, with their 19th-century jackboots and lots of leather, which any sensible army would have got rid of long before because it’s pointless: it’s expensive and just rots when it gets wet. What’s the point of jackboots when you can have ankle boots? It makes no sense whatsoever, apart from that it makes you look good sartorially.

What the Nazis were doing in this period was to nod to their perceived military prowess of the 19th century, but with their new Nazi slant. It was a way of telling soldiers to regain their German pride, look the part, puff out their chest and get the fräulein. That’s fine if you’re going to win in six weeks – you can afford to have long greatcoats and all of the rest of it – but you just can’t do it if the fighting goes on for six years.

JB: The perception in a lot of coffee-table history books is that the German military was superb. Where has that misconception come from?

JH: I think it is largely from the Cold War, when the notion was often that the Germans, having been the only troops to have fought the Red Army, were the ones to study in order to learn how to smash these boot-heavy hordes. Laced through that is the work of some British historians who, in the same period, were beating themselves up about the fact that Britain was in decline, and wanted to work out how to do something about it.

But the idea of a superb German military just doesn’t hold up to any close scrutiny. One of the problems is that by focusing on the strategic and tactical level you don’t put any analysis into that medium, operational level, which becomes lost knowledge. Where you do need to explain or explore the operational level, you just fall back on assumed knowledge that has become a sort of truth – but actually isn’t.

Everyone says, for instance, how well the Germans were trained, so I started looking into that. I did a lot of research and eventually realised that American, British and German infantrymen were all trained pretty much the same way – there are only so many ways you can skin a cat, after all. If you look at the training pamphlets, what is astonishing is how similar they are across the nations. The only difference is that at the back of the German pamphlets there’s a section on horses – which of course wasn’t relevant in the mechanised British and American armies.

The German invasion of Crete was absolute insanity: their best-trained troops, who were slaughtered

JB: What’s your take on the military tactics adopted by the Germans throughout the war?

JH: If you go back to the start of the war and look at the Germans’ early tactics, all they were doing was exactly what they’d always done. It was a rapid war of manoeuvre, which they had been practising before Frederick the Great – and the reason that they had to do it was because they were short of resources. The only way they were going to win was through launching a lightning strike that off-balanced their enemy and led to a quick victory.

But history should have told them that, if it didn’t work very quickly, it was never going to work. It was all or nothing in short order, and it unravelled pretty swiftly. The Battle of Britain was the first big check, but another was the effort they spent wasting time in Greece and Crete. What was the point of the Crete campaign, strategically? It achieved very, very little.

JB: Was the Mediterranean campaign a distraction for the Germans, then – and the Italian alliance a liability?

JH: Unquestionably, yes, because they were no longer fighting on just two fronts – against Britain and in the west. Instead, they were fighting on the southern front as well as preparing for Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which was the biggest clash of arms the world has ever known.

The Nazi invasion of Crete in 1941, for example, is always thought of as the great failing of the British – which it was, and the island should never have been lost. But why were the Germans undertaking the offensive in the first place? It was absolute insanity: using their best-trained, most incentivised troops, who were slaughtered.

More importantly, they also lost some 250 of their transport planes, which were really in short supply – and boy, were they going to need them in the Soviet Union. Not only that, but the strategic benefit of capturing Crete’s airfields was neutraliseda month later when the Allies captured key airfields in Syria.

A criticism of British historians is that they’re obsessed with El Alamein and north Africa and the Mediterranean, when it was all ‘just a sideshow’. However, my research leads me to think that the person who was really obsessed with the Mediterranean was Hitler. He referred to it all the time, and the extent to which he reinforced defences in Tunisia, for instance, was just extraordinary. He was absolutely paranoid about the so-called ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe – which, ironically, is often a criticism levelled at Winston Churchill, yet actually I’d argue that Churchill was right in his concerns.

JB: Axis losses in north Africa were equivalent to Stalingrad, weren’t they? It was an absolute calamity.

JH: More Axis forces surrendered at the end of the Tunisian campaign than did at Stalingrad, certainly. But it’s important to make the point that, though people quite often confuse boots on the ground with strategic importance, the two are not necessarily comparable. There is a tendency to think of the eastern front as the campaign, for instance, because it was so soldier-heavy. Yet an American would hardly say the 1942–43 Guadalcanal campaign [a significant Allied strategic victory in the Pacific] was unimportant, even though the number of troops involved was actually quite low because it took place in such a small physical area.

What happened in the Mediterranean in the summer of 1943 is particularly interesting when you compare it with the conflict going on elsewhere. Between June and September the Luftwaffe lost something like 700 aircraft on the eastern front, for instance, whereas they lost around 3,450 in the Mediterranean. Add to that the fact that airpower is much more intensive on the economy than tanks and guns, and you can’t simply say that the conflict in the Mediterranean was a sideshow. It absolutely wasn’t at all.

Germany focused on attacking Britain where it was strongest rather than where it was weakest

JB: Was the German approach misguided in any other ways?

JH: One of the privileges of doing a big narrative sweep such as this is that you can show how everything works together. There’s been a tendency to write a book on just the Battle of the Atlantic, or to write a chapter on it here and there in bigger histories. But I wanted to fold everything in together,so that one minute you’re on the Atlantic, then in north Africa, and then outside Moscow. You can show how one campaign or theatre affected another – as, of course, they all did.

My take is this: if you want to defeat Britain, you have to cut off its access to global resources. It’s as simple as that. And I’d argue that Germany focused on attacking Britain where it was strongest rather than where it was weakest.

Examples of this include the Luftwaffe attacking Britain which, in the summer of 1940, had the world’s first fully co-ordinated air defence system – which meant the Germans were singularly ill-equipped to launch an attack. They had great numbers of aircraft, but only ever managed to knock out for more than 24 hours just one airfield of around 130.

They also tried to take on the Royal Navy during the Norwegian campaign, and again in 1941 with their own inferior surface fleet. In the March of that year they lost their three biggest U-boat aces, and in May lost the Bismarck and the Enigma machine. A far more sensible idea would have been to not bother with a surface fleet at all but instead build up, prewar, a large and experienced U-boat fleet.

JB: Why did it take until 1943 for the Allies to finally win the Battle of the Atlantic?

JH: Because the challenges of destroying the German U-boat force were enormous: they were not going to give up in a hurry. In addition, to completely close the protective gap over the Atlantic – which is vast – required unbelievable technology.

This is another instance for which you can argue that the Allies focused their technological know-how in the right areas: on developments such as the cavity magnetron, for instance, which enabled them to build a much smaller radar that could fit on a Wellington or Liberator bomber. The impact of these advances was unbelievably quick if you compare what was achieved between 1940 and 1943 with what wasn’t achieved in 13 years of war in Afghanistan this century, for instance.

Yet there were all sorts of other changes going on that meant the battle did continue. The Germans belatedly recognised that the deployment of U-boats was where it was at, and so produced more and more of them – and, of course, the more U-boats there were, the more the Allies had to get rid of. So that was a formidable challenge. But even despite that, after May 1941 the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic was no longer in doubt.

JB: Hitler’s declaration of war on the US a few days after Pearl Harbor must score highly as the war’s most bizarre strategic decision. What do you think motivated him?

JH: I think that it was a total misreading of the strategic situation. His geopolitical understanding was absolutely woeful, because he was a very small-minded man, his worldview was incredibly narrow, and it was his way or nothing. He couldn’t get inside the head of anybody else, hadn’t travelled, didn’t read any languages and wasn’t really interested in global affairs apart from running the show. He was utterly inept, and totally unsuitable for the job of commanding the German armed forces.

James Holland and John Buckley in conversation at the Imperial Museum
James Holland and John Buckley in conversation. “You simply can’t say that the conflict in the Mediterranean was a sideshow. It absolutely wasn’t at all”, argues Holland (Image by Helen Atkinson / Yellowsnapper 2017)

JB: We tend now to have the perception that a so-called ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States is a given. But you can argue that the war, from 1941 on, is where it really started to crystallise and that, prior to that point, there hadn’t been that kind of relationship.

JH: Well, yes – Britain was the old enemy. And I think that’s one of the reasons that a lot of American historians in the past 30 or 40 years or so have displayed a certain amount of Anglophobia – because they’ve always been interested in their nation’s history, have grown up learning about the American Revolution, and are therefore predisposed to stick the knife in a little bit.

The truth of the matter is that, up to the Second World War, the US had always been isolationist, wanting to look after itself first. And that’s an entirely understandable strategy. Yet, at the time of the war, there was such a compulsion from the senior leadership in America and Britain to get on, forge friendships and work for a common cause. That was driven from the top, from Churchill and Roosevelt, but also by figures all the way down, such as US general Dwight D Eisenhower and chief of staff Walter Bedell Smith.

In the second half of the war, particularly, there was a huge level of co-operation between the Allies – which is why I’ll never understand those historians who constantly bang on about how many arguments there were.

Where the situation changed was in the aftermath of the war. Suddenly, the US had emerged as the global superpower that we know them to be now, and took from Britain the position of pre-eminent international power, of global policeman. Indeed, Britain was a bit left behind as the US continued its upward journey. What compels the ‘special relationship’ now are more practical things, such as our shared language, and as time passes the role played by the experience of war has weakened. Yet, at the time, we certainly were side by side in this big, global moral crusade.

James Holland is a writer and historian. The War in the West: Volume 2, The Allies Fight Back 1941-43 is published by Bantam Press. For more see Griffon Merlin

John Buckley is a historian and author. He is co-editor, with Peter Preston-Hough, of Operation Market Garden (Helion and Co., 2016)


This article was taken from issue 4 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in June 2017